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Social Democratic Federation (U.S.)

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Title: Social Democratic Federation (U.S.)  
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Subject: Socialist Party of America, American Labor Party, Norman Thomas, History of socialism, August Claessens
Collection: Political Parties Established in 1936, Socialist Party of America
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Social Democratic Federation (U.S.)

Social Democratic Federation dues stamps were applied continuously to regular SPA dues booklets in 1936 & 1937.

The Social Democratic Federation of the United States of America (SDF) was a political party in the United States, formed in 1936 by the so-called "Old Guard" faction of the Socialist Party of America. The SDF later merged again with the Socialist Party in 1957 to form the Socialist Party-Social Democratic Federation (SP-SDF).[1]


  • History 1
    • Origins of the split 1.1
    • Organization of the SDF 1.2
    • Reunification with the Socialist Party 1.3
  • Publications 2
  • See also 3
  • Footnotes 4
  • External links 5


Origins of the split

Social Democratic Federation leader President of the United States Norman Thomas polling nearly a million votes in the election of 1932.[3]

Waldman recounted the main points of departure between the radical youth of the party and the staid older elements:

"It all began with the formation of groups in the Socialist Party that wanted to commit it to direct action. 'Direct action' means that an organized group will take any action, illegal as well as legal, that it believes will bring about the reform, changes, or objective it seeks. The general strike for political purposes, sabotage, the use of violence, the spread of fear, the paralysis of industry, trade, commerce, and even government are examples....

"The direct-action groups in the Socialist Party called themselves Militants; some formed the Revolutionary Policy Committee; others used other names.

"When they first appeared on the scene, they wore blue shirts and adopted the upraised arm and the clenched fist as a form of salute. They insisted that the party coin flamboyant slogans, organize street demonstrations, arrange great protest rallies, and in general, do the things that the Communists had made popular in their day-to-day activities. The Militants also proposed that, as the Communists had done, we form separate organizations for the unemployed, youth, tenants, and housewives, as if those groups had interests distinct from those of the workers as a whole....

"In due time, organizations of students, youths, tenants, housewives, and the unemployed formed by the Socialist group entered United Fronts with like organizations under Communist auspices. The fronts became transmission belts for the Communists... Most of the fronts sought to carry out the objectives of Soviet foreign policy, to glorify the Soviet system, and to spread confusion in the ranks of society.

"We were convinced that by engaging in United Front activities, we, who were opposed to Communist aims, would soon become witting or unwitting parties to the furtherance of those ams and to the destruction of democracy."[4]

The National Executive Committee of the Socialist Party also established a department aimed to direct the activities of Socialists in the trade unions, a tactic which smacked of quasi-Communist tactics to the members of the Old Guard faction.[5]

The 1934 Declaration of Principles was merely the result of a long process, in the view of the Old Guard leadership, its call for the "development of the dictatorship of workers and peasants" particularly galling. In closing the debate on the matter for the Old Guard at the Detroit convention, New York state party chairman Waldman had condemned the Declaration in no uncertain terms, accusing the Declaration of advancing "dangerous, provocative proposals" which advanced an "anarchistic, illegal, Communist doctrine."[6]

Organization of the SDF

After the passage of the Declaration of Principles and the closing of the convention, the Old Guard returned home. On behalf of the Socialist Party of New York, chairman Waldman immediately issued a statement disavowing the actions of the Detroit convention:

"We repudiate the essential features of the Declaration of Principles adopted at the Socialist National Convention insofar as they depart from the traditional socialist position and commit the Socialist Party to the use of violence and extralegal means.

"As between the program of orderly, peaceable, constructive, and intelligent political action and the insurrectionary, destructive, and violent methods proposed by the left wing, Socialists will have no difficulty in making their choice."[7]

The Old Guard opponents of the Detroit decisions formally organized themselves as a faction immediately after the close of the Detroit conclave, establishing the Jasper McLevy of Bridgeport, Connecticut. Louis Hendin was engaged as Executive Secretary of the faction, which had already in 1934 taken the form of a "party within the party."[10]

In his 1944 memoir, Socialist Party of New York State Chairman Louis Waldman freely acknowledged that he and his New York Old Guard comrades violated the supreme authority of the 1934 National Convention (so designated under party law) and immediately engaged in a factional property-grab:

The Socialist Party of New York issued its own dues stamps for several months during the first half of 1936.
Louis Waldman, c. 1944
"Back from Detroit, I was immediately confronted with a problem which involved millions of dollars of property controlled by subsidiaries of the Socialist Party. In New York alone there were such institutions as the Jewish Daily Forward, the leading Jewish newspaper in the world with a circulation running into hundreds of thousands and with reserve funds amounting to millions. There was The New Leader, a weekly newspaper published in English; there was the Rand School of Social Science which, together with Camp Tamiment, had enormous property value, not to speak of their importance as propaganda and educational instruments. Control of the Forward alone also meant probable control of fraternal and labor organizations such as the Workmen's Circle, with its millions of dollars in property and tens of thousands of members throughout the United States....

"After Detroit it was obvious that the militant Socialists controlled the Socialist Party. I saw that all they had to do in order to gain control of the valuable property in New York was to revoke the New York State charter and expel all state organizations controlled by the Social Democrats or the Old Guard. Since there was always a minority of militant Socialists in each of these corporate institutions, these properties involving millions of dollars in property value and cash reserves would quickly fall into the hands of the militants....

"All during 1935 and the early part of 1936 my office was converted into a meeting place for the various committees and members of the organizations threatened by the militants. Constitutions and bylaws were modified in such a way as to prevent control falling into the hands of Norman Thomas' super-revolutionists."[11]

It was not until January 1936 that the National Executive Committee finally revoked the charter of the Old Guard-dominated Socialist Party of New York and reorganized the state under the leadership of an alliance of forces loyal to Norman Thomas and members of the Militant faction.[12] The marriage had already broken up long before this divorce was finalized, however.

Although the split had taken place at the time of the

  • Guide to the Social Democratic Federation of America Records 1933–1956. Collection maintained by Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives at New York University. 6.5 linear feet (13 boxes). Call Phrase: Tamiment 011 R2644-R2647. Accessed Feb. 11, 2009.

External links

  1. ^ Social Democratic Federation Papers Finding Aid, Tamiment Library, New York University. Retrieved February 7, 2010.
  2. ^ Louis Waldman, The Good Fight: A Quest for Social Progress. Philadelphia: Dorrance & Co., 1975; pg. 210.
  3. ^ Waldman, The Good Fight, pg. 210.
  4. ^ Waldman, The Good Fight, pg. 211–213.
  5. ^ Waldman, The Good Fight, pg. 214.
  6. ^ Waldman, The Good Fight, pg. 214.
  7. ^ Waldman, The Good Fight, pg. 220.
  8. ^ Charles Solomon, Detroit and the Party. New York: Committee for the Preservation of Socialist Principles, n.d. [1934]; pg. 3.
  9. ^ Solomon, Detroit and the Party, pg. 12.
  10. ^ The Crisis in the Socialist Party: The Detroit Convention: Appeal by the Committee for the Preservation of the Socialist Party. New York: Committee for the Preservation of the Socialist Party, n.d. [1934]; pg. 1.
  11. ^ Louis Waldman, Labor Lawyer. New York: E.P. Dutton & Co., 1944; pp. 272–273.
  12. ^ Waldman, The Good Fight, pg. 223.
  13. ^ a b c d Lewis Conn, "Elect McLevy to Head Party of Old Guards," The Socialist Call, vol. 3, whole no. 116 (June 5, 1937), pg. 11.
  14. ^ Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, "Guide to the August Claessens Papers, 1911–1955."
  15. ^ Tamiment Library Staff, "Guide to the Social Democratic Federation of America Records, 1933–1956." New York: New York University Libraries, 2003.
  16. ^ Norman Thomas, Socialism on the Defensive. New York: Harper and Brothers, 1938; pp. 287–288.
  17. ^ "Guide to the Social Democratic Federation of America Records, 1933–1956."
  18. ^ Goldwater, Walter Radical periodicals in America 1890-1950 New Haven, Yale University Library 1964 p.45


See also

  • Social Democratic Federation U.S.A: principles and program. Washington, D.C. : Social Democratic Federation U.S.A., 1937
  • Louis Waldman Should unions be incorporated? Responsibility of unions under the law, Washington, D.C. : Social Democratic Federation U.S.A., 1937
  • Frederick Shulman The meaning of social democracy New York City, N.Y. : Social Democratic Federation, 1940
  • Souvenir Journal : Social Democratic Federation, Ninth Anniversary Celebration. New York : Social Democratic Federation, 1944
  • William Feigenbaum "Let us review the scene" with William Feigenbaum New York City, N.Y. : Social Democratic Federation, 1951

The SDF published a monthly, Social Democrat edited by Algernon Lee, August Claessens and Liston Oak. It ran from Vol. I #1 July 1944 to Vol XII #5 December 1955.[18]


During the years of Democratic Socialist Federation.

Reunification with the dissident Social Democratic Federation was long a goal of the Socialist Party regulars, with initial attempts beginning as early as 1937.[15] In his 1938 book, Socialism on the Defensive, SP leader Norman Thomas acknowledged that a number of issues had been involved in the split which led to the formation of the SDF, including "organizational policy, the effort to make the party inclusive of all socialist elements not bound by communist discipline; a feeling of dissatisfaction with social democratic tactics which had failed in Germany" as well as "the socialist estimate of Russia; and the possibility of cooperation with communists on certain specific matters." Still, he held that "those of us who believe that an inclusive socialist party is desirable, and ought to be possible, hope that the growing friendliness of socialist groups will bring about not only joint action but ultimately a satisfactory reunion on the basis of sufficient agreement for harmonious support of a socialist program."[16] This speedy reunification failed after Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939 revealed the threat of a coalition of two totalitarian states. The threat revealed by this pact reduced the influence of pacifists in the Federation, the socialist Party, and in the labor movement.

Reunification with the Socialist Party

Executive Secretary of the SDF was August Claessens, who later served as National Chairman of the group until his death in 1954.[14]

The Social Democratic Federation was not organized as an electoral political organization but rather as an interest group seeking to establish connection with the Reading, Pennsylvania and Bridgeport, Connecticut also left the Socialist Party to establish the SDF. In New York, the SDF supported Franklin Delano Roosevelt and American Labor Party candidates, but the takeover of the ALP by the Communist Party USA drove the SDF's adherents from that organization.

The SDF chose to seek international affiliation immediately with the Socialist International, over the objections of some delegates like William Karlin of New York, who urged his fellows to wait the short time until "the Trotsky Communists who call themselves the Socialist Party" joined the Fourth International before seeking admission.[13] This theme of communist influence in the Socialist Party from whence they sprung was echoed by Louis Waldman, who declared to the press than Norman Thomas had come under "communist influence" and that "rather than lose our identity as Americans, we left the party."[13]

[13] as an affiliate.Labour and Socialist International and supporting an anti-Nazi boycott. The convention also voted to apply to the Spain of Loyalist government The gathering passed a resolution of support to the [13]

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